On Friday, 30 March, over 1,400 Palestinians were injured and 15 killed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) during mass demonstrations along the border between Gaza and Israel. At least 750 of those wounded were reportedly hit by live ammunition, and according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, medical facilities in Gaza are struggling to cope with the number of casualties. At least three more civilians have died of their injuries since Friday.
The demonstration, in which over 30,000 Palestinians are estimated to have participated, was the first in what is expected to be a series of protests leading up to the 70th anniversary of the ‘Nakba’ on 15 May, commemorating when over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. While the vast majority of protesters participated peacefully in Friday’s demonstrations, a number threw rocks and petrol bombs. Israeli troops, including snipers, responded to the protests with live ammunition, rubber-bullets and tear gas, raising concerns about the deliberate and excessive use of deadly force.
In an emergency meeting on 30 March UN Security Council members condemned the killing of civilians, but were unable to agree to a unanimous Presidential Statement. The UN Secretary-General has called for an independent investigation into the deaths. On 1 April Israel’s Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman, announced that there will be no official inquiry and that the Israeli government will not cooperate with any international investigation.
Friday marked the deadliest confrontation in Gaza since the 50-day war between Hamas and Israel in 2014, which led to the death of over 1,500 civilians. The dire humanitarian situation in Gaza has been exacerbated by the ongoing air, sea and land blockade by Israel – a form of collective punishment for Gaza’s approximately 2 million residents. The risk of further violence only increases as protests continue and the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel and the Nakba approach.
The Israeli government must respect the right of Palestinians to peaceful assembly, and the IDF must cease using deadly and disproportionate force against unarmed civilians. In order to end the prevailing culture of impunity, all civilian deaths should be independently and transparently investigated.
On 31 March Al-Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud (Al-Hassan) was handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by Malian authorities for allegedly committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mali. Al-Hassan has been identified by the ICC as a member of the extremist armed group Ansar Al-Dine, and the de facto chief of the Islamic Police during the group’s 2012 occupation of Timbuktu.
The Pre-Trial Chamber has determined that there are reasonable grounds to believe Al-Hassan is responsible for crimes against humanity, including the persecution of the inhabitants of Timbuktu on the basis of their religion and gender, and for war crimes, including attacks on religious buildings and historic monuments. Al-Hassan also allegedly participated in a policy of forced marriages that led to the rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls. When the charges against him are confirmed it will mark the first time a perpetrator will stand trial for gender-based persecution at the ICC.
The case against Al-Hassan will also be the second time the ICC focuses on the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime. On 27 September 2016 Ahmad Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi was found guilty of the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against historic monuments and religious buildings, including nine mausoleums and one mosque in Timbuktu in June and July 2012. The Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, stated that his crimes were “a profound attack on the identity, the memory and, therefore, the future of entire populations.”
Mass evacuations of opposition fighters and their families from formerly opposition-held territories within eastern Ghouta to areas in northwestern Syria have continued this week, bringing the total number of evacuees to over 49,000. The situation in the largest remaining opposition-held area of eastern Ghouta – Douma – remains unclear. It is estimated that between 78,000 and 150,000 people remain trapped within the city.
Despite international outcry, the Syrian government’s military offensive on eastern Ghouta intensified during mid-February and has resulted in the deaths of over 1,700 civilians and the displacement of over 83,000 people. At the start of the offensive, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated 393,000 people were trapped in eastern Ghouta, which had been besieged by government forces since 2013. The recent evacuations have been undertaken as a result of local ceasefire agreements, without any involvement of the UN. In September 2017 the Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria determined similar evacuation agreements following the fall of eastern Aleppo resulted in the forced displacement of civilians, constituting a war crime.
The majority of the evacuees from eastern Ghouta are being relocated to Idlib, one of the largest remaining opposition-held territories within Syria. Approximately 1 million internally displaced people already live within the governorate, and the Syrian government has been carrying out a military offensive there since December 2017. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least eleven civilians were killed due to airstrikes across Idlib governorate this past weekend.
Because of Russian obstruction, the UN Security Council remains incapable of taking action to halt atrocities in Syria, emboldening parties to the conflict to continue perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity. In response to the situation in eastern Ghouta, on 24 February the Council adopted Resolution 2401 calling for a sustained ceasefire, but the resolution has been ignored by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.
The Council should urgently mandate the deployment of UN monitors to oversee civilian evacuations and aid deliveries to eastern Ghouta, and to deter further human rights abuses. Those responsible for atrocities in Syria, regardless of position or affiliation, must be held accountable for their actions, including via the UN General Assembly’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of atrocities in Syria.